Have you ever heard of the “ama”? Ama, which means means “sea-women,” are the famous female divers of Japan. While some talk of preserving this important but declining cultural tradition, one ama has been using techniques similar to ones used by U.S. fishermen to stay on — or in this case, in — the water.
Ama fish in groups and sometimes in mother-daughter teams, diving headfirst without any special equipment in shallow water (15 to 30 feet) for about 50 to 90 seconds to collect abalone, seaweed, mollusks and fish, according to Fish Catching Methods of the World, which was first published in 1964 and part of National Fisherman‘s inhouse library.
Sometimes a husband is there too, not in the water, but assisting from a boat. The work suits women, writes author A. von Brandt, “because they have a better fat layer which insulates their bodies.” Men were also often absent from villages for a long time fishing for tuna, making it economically necessary for women to dive for food.
However the tradition began, it is declining: In 2010, about 2,174 female divers were still working the waters across Japan compared to 17,000 in 1956. Their average age is over 60, according to a recent article in the Japan Times about efforts to keep this occupation alive.
Those efforts include the formation of several ama preservation groups. Preservation is a good thing, but to keep an occupation alive, people in it need to make money. One ama, Nayomi Oi, said “she believes that if divers can earn enough to provide for themselves, younger generations will be more interested in the work.”
Oi, age 56, is the youngest of 16 divers in her district (the oldest is 89). She had long wanted to become an ama, and finally began seven years ago after undergoing surgery for breast cancer because “she wanted to live a life without regrets.”
Oi has been using direct-marketing and education to keep her profession viable. She sells “tsukudani” (seaweed stalk) and turban shells cooked in soy sauce in partnership with a store in Tokyo, holds workshops about diving and visits elementary schools to get children interested in the ama profession too.
This makes so much sense to me. Fishermen, whether they’re from California, New England or Japan, don’t want to be preserved. They want to keep working.
To learn more about the ama, watch this clip from this BBC documentary, Fish! A Japanese Obsession. Watching the dives is pretty amazing.
Though the host chuckles as he watches a husband stand by while his “missus” constantly dives, he has obvious respect for the ama. I do too. I’m not sure if I buy the reasoning of women being better for the job because we have more fat — especially now wetsuits and not fat can keep people warm in cold water. At the same time, not to be sexist (or reverse sexist?), I don’t blame them for using it as a reason for keeping the ama a women-only club.